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The Year of the Nurse

May 5, 2020

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, traditionally considered to be the founder of modern nursing. In recognition of all the nurses who have followed in Nightingale’s footsteps, the World Health Organization (WHO) has designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

Since 1954—the 100th anniversary of Nightingale’s pioneering work on the battlefield during the Crimean War—the U.S. has celebrated National Nurses Week during the second week in May. May 6 is designated as National Nurses Day, and May 12—the final day of Nurses Week—is Florence Nightingale’s birthday. This year, the American Nurses Association extended the traditional National Nurses Week to a month-long recognition.

When Nightingale began working in a hospital for British soldiers during the Crimean War, she confronted filthy conditions that she recognized as responsible for much more death and suffering than the battlefield injuries the soldiers had sustained. She and the nurses she trained helped improve patient care by introducing hygienic practices that reduced the hospital’s death rate by two-thirds.

Nightingale would go on to establish a hospital and a training school for nurses. Under her leadership, the profession of nursing—once reviled as lowly labor—became a respectable, honorable vocation.

Today, we continue to celebrate Nightingale’s role in building the foundation of the field of nursing. Her story of overcoming the odds resonates with modern nurses, particularly those currently treating patients in regions ravaged by COVID-19. We say nurses are on the “front lines” for good reason. Like Florence Nightingale in her battlefield hospital, today’s nurses liken their workplaces to war zones, where caring for a steady stream of incoming COVID-19 patients requires flexibility, skill, and expertise.

WHO describes the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife as “a year-long effort to celebrate the work of nurses and midwives, highlight the challenging conditions they often face, and advocate for increased investments in the nursing and midwifery workforce.” In 2020, the dawn of COVID-19 is calling increased attention to the pivotal role nurses play in healthcare facilities throughout the world and their ability to deliver care in trying circumstances in which resources may be limited or even absent.

Nurses in every specialty are having to modify their patient care practices to keep patients and staff safe from a virus that is especially threatening to the immunocompromised, such as those undergoing cancer treatment. While hygiene is always of primary concern to modern healthcare workers, COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus in this Year of the Nurse the continuing relevance of the basic lessons taught by Florence Nightingale.

The legacy of Nightingale’s work—which has saved innumerable lives with the application of proper hygiene in patient care—is evident in the daily work of today’s nurse, in which the ease of transmission of the COVID-19 virus has made scrupulous disinfecting and personal protective equipment a life-saving necessity. When we finally emerge into a post-coronavirus world, there is no doubt that there will be new lessons learned from today’s nurses that, like Nightingale’s legacy, will better equip us all for the next healthcare challenge to come.

For resources on COVID-19 as it applies to the oncology community, visit ACCC’s continually updated Coronavirus Response page. ACCC members can also access ACCCExchange, a forum that allows them to communicate in real time with their colleagues about how the COVID-19 virus is affecting their communities and their patients.

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